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Levels of Nothing by Robert Lawrence Kuhn

Levels of Nothing by Robert Lawrence Kuhn

(The following is from Skeptic Magazine Vol. 18 No. 2 September 2013 pp. 34-37)

Nothing, of late, is something of a scandal. Physicists and philosophers debate the efficacy of quantum physics, and the value of philosophical analysis, to explain why there is Something rather than Nothing. In the Vol. 13 No. 2 (2007) issue of Skeptic, I confronted my life-long obsession with Nothing. Entitled “Why This Universe: Toward a Taxonomy of Ultimate Explanations,” the article described my existential angst and offered some 27 possible “ultimate explanations.” I suggested that while “Why Not Nothing?” may seem impenetrable, “Why This Universe?”, energized by remarkable advances in cosmology, may be accessible. While they are not at all the same question, perhaps if we can begin to decipher the latter, we can begin to decrypt the former.

After the article was published, Skeptic editor Michael Shermer encouraged me to expand the article into a book. I approached the philosopher John Leslie, who for decades had focused on Something/ Nothing and whom I had come to know through our discussions on Closer To Truth, the PBS television series that I created and host, and we set about to co-edit a book of readings and commentaries on the ultimate question.

The Mystery of Existence: Why is there Anything At All? (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), long in gestation, presents the ideas of contemporary thinkers as well as some others throughout intellectual history, grouped under five possible “solutions” to the “Why-is-thereSomething-rather-than-Nothing?” puzzle: (1) a blank is absurd; (2) no explanation needed; (3) chance; (4) value/perfection as ultimate; and (5) mind/consciousness as ultimate.

In this article I shall explore the essence of Nothing, or what I call“Levels of Nothing,” especially in light of recent debates and public interest. Why “Levels” of Nothing? That’s where the confusion lies.

What is it About Nothing?

Lump together everything that exists and might exist—physical, mental, platonic, spiritual, God, other nonphysicals. As for the physical, include all matter, energy, space and time, and all the laws and principles that govern them (known and unknown); as for the mental, imagine all kinds of consciousness and awareness (known and unknown); as for the platonic, gather all forms of abstract objects (numbers, logic, forms, propositions, possibilities—known and unknown); as for the spiritual and God, embrace anything that could possibly fit these nonphysical categories (if anything does); and as for “other nonphysicals,” well, I just want to be sure not to leave anything unclassified. Lump together literally everything contained in ultimate reality. Now call it all by the simple name “Something. ”Why is there “Something” rather than “Nothing”?

Why Not Nothing? What guides me here is gut feeling, not clever reasoning, which is why no argument has ever dissuaded me from continuing to think, following Leibniz, 3 that Nothing, no world, would be simpler and easier than any world, that Nothing would have been the least arbitrary and “most natural” state of affairs.

As I have continued to think about Nothing, I have continued to think that Nothing “should,” in some sense, have obtained, and the only reason I accept the fact that Nothing does not obtain is not because of any of the arguments against Nothing, 4 but because of the raw existence of Something—because in my private consciousness I am forced to recognize that real existents compose Something. In other words, an a priori weighing of Nothing v. Something (from a timeless, explanatorily earlier perspective) would, for me, tip the balance heavily to Nothing, but for the fact of the matter.

Thus, since I have no choice but to recognize that there is Something, I have no choice but to conclude that there is foundational force, selector, productive principle or type of necessity—some deep reason—that brings about the absence of Nothing. I cannot rid myself of the conviction that Nothing would have obtained had not something special somehow superseded or counteracted it. Yes, I know that seems circular—and many well-regarded philosophers say, “So there’s a world not a blank; what’s in any way surprising about that?” But I just can’t help feeling that they are passing right over the problem most probative of ultimate reality.

Levels of Nothing

Defining “Nothing” may seem simple—no thing, not a thing. But what’s a “thing”? I invoke the term “thing” in the most general possible way, and therefore, given some possible notions of Nothing, it is no contradiction to find “things” that compose these different kinds or levels of Nothing. Teasing apart these constituent things, as if scaffolds or sinews of Nothings, may help enrich understanding of the nature of Nothing, yielding a taxonomy that arrays opposing kinds of Nothing that could be conceived and might have existed.

This taxonomy is structured as a deconstruction or as a dissection, as it were, a reverse layering, a peeling, a progressive reduction of the content of each Nothing in a hierarchy of Nothings. As such, this taxonomy takes its heritage from the so-called Subtraction Argument, which seeks to show that the absence of all concrete objects would be metaphysically possible. (Stated simply, the Subtraction Argument works by imagining a sequence of possible worlds each containing one less concrete object than the world before, so that in the very last world even the very last object has vanished. It is no surprise that complexities emerge.)

Developing this way of thinking, there might be nine levels of Nothing, with a general progression from Nothing most simplistic (Nothing One) to Nothing most absolute (Nothing Nine). There are criticisms of each of these Nothings. My point here is not so much to argue the legitimacy of any one kind of Nothing but rather to construct an exhaustive taxonomy of all potential or competing Nothings, and perhaps a taxonomy in which those Nothings are mutually exclusive. Following are nine levels of Nothings.

  1. Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all visible objects (particles and energy are permitted)—an utterly simplistic, pre-scientific view.
  2. Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all matter (no particles, but energy is permitted—flouting the law of mass-energy equivalence).
  3. Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all matter and energy.
  4. Nothing as existing space and time that is by necessity—irremediably and permanently in all directions, temporal as well as spatial—totally empty of all matter and energy.
  5. Nothing of the kind found in some theoretical formulations by physicists, where, although space-time (unified) as well as mass-energy (unified) do not exist, pre-existing laws, particularly laws of quantum mechanics, do exist. And it is these laws that make it the case that universes can and do, from time to time, pop into existence from “Nothing,” creating spacetime as well as mass-energy. (It is standard physics to assume that empty space must seethe with virtual particles, reflecting the uncertainty principle of quantum physics, where particle-antiparticle pairs come into being and then, almost always, in a fleetingly brief moment, annihilate each other.)
  6. Nothing where not only is there no space-time and no mass-energy, but also there are no preexisting laws of physics that could generate space-time or mass-energy (universes).
  7. Nothing where not only is there no space-time, no mass-energy, and no pre-existing laws of physics, but also there are no non-physical things or kinds that are concrete (rather than abstract)—no God, no gods, and no consciousness (cosmic or otherwise). This means that there are no physical or non-physical beings or existents of any kind—nothing, whether natural or supernatural, that is concrete (rather than abstract).
  8. Nothing where not only is there none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 7, there are no concrete existing things, physical or non-physical), but also there are no abstract objects of any kind—no numbers, no sets, no logic, no general propositions, no universals, no Platonic forms (e.g., no value).
  9. Nothing where not only is there none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 8, there are no abstract objects), but also there are no possibilities of any kind (recognizing that possibilities and abstract objects overlap, though allowing that they can be distinguished).

Nothings 1 through 7 progressively remove or eliminate existing things, so that a reasonable stopping point—a point at which we might well be thought to have reached (what I hesitatingly call) “Real Nothing”, the metaphysical limit—would be Nothing Seven, which features no concrete existing things (no physical or non-physical concrete existents) of any kind.

Nothings 8 and 9 go further, eliminating nonconcrete objects, things, existents and realities. Do they go too far? Many philosophers assert that neither Nothing 8 nor Nothing 9 is metaphysically possible, arguing that the claimed absence of abstract objects and/or possibilities would constitute a logical contradiction and hence abstract objects and/or possibilities exist necessarily. This could be important because, as John Leslie points out, among the realities which aren’t concrete things, or which do not depend on the existence of concrete things, and thus cannot be eliminated, there may be some realities that are plausible candidates for explaining the world of concrete things. In this way of thinking, the crucial distinction is between realities that seemingly can be eliminated and realities that seemingly cannot be eliminated, rather than any particular way of distinguishing between levels of nothingness or particular ways of defining nothingness.

Note that among all these levels of Nothing, one of the “lesser Nothings”—that is, a kind of Nothing with more “things”in it—is the Nothing of physicists. What physicists contemplate—the sudden emergence or “tunneling” of universes from “Nothing”—is fascinating and indeed may be cosmogenic, but the tunneling process or capacity is not Nothing. The Nothing of physicists is thick with the complete set of the laws of physics, and so between physicists’ Nothing and Real Nothing lies a vast, unbridgeable gulf. On this taxonomic scale, physicists’ Nothing is Nothing Level 5, barely half way to utterly Nothing. If physicists’ Nothing were in reality Real Nothing (i.e., ultimate reality), the laws of quantum physics (or whatever might turn out to be the most fundamental physical laws underlying quantum physics) would have to be either impossible to remove (meaning that eliminating them would involve logical contradiction) or a brute fact about existence beyond which explanation would be meaningless. I doubt I could ever get over the odd idea that something so intricate, so involved, so organized and so accessible as the laws of physics would be the ultimate brute fact.

As a separate consideration, some philosophers of religion argue that God is a “necessity”—meaning that it would be impossible for God not to exist— thus precluding Nothing 7 (which has no non-physical concrete things such as God but still has abstract objects) and crowning Nothing 6 (which has no space-time, no mass-energy, no laws of physics but still has God and other nonphysical things) as the metaphysical limit of what is to be explained. I find the move challenging. Moreover, based on the levels of Nothing in this taxonomy, it would seem less of a leap to imagine a world without God (Nothing 7) than to imagine a world without abstract objects (Nothing 8). For the traditional God, that won’t do.

Why Not Nothing?

Cosmic visions are overwhelming, but I am sometimes preoccupied with another conundrum. How is it that we humans have such farsighted understanding after only a few thousand years of historical consciousness, only a few hundred years of effective science, and only a few decades of cosmological observations? Maybe it’s still too early in the game. Maybe answers have been with us all along. This is a work in process and diverse contributions are needed.

Setting aside my taxonomy and consulting my gut, I come to only two kinds of answers. The first is that there can be no answer: Existence is a brute fact without explanation. The second is that at the primordial beginning, explanatorily and timelessly prior to time, some thing was self-existing. The essence of this something necessitated its existence such that non-existence to it would be as inherently impossible as physical immortality to us is factually impossible.

Various things or substances could conceivably contain this deeply centered self-existing essence, from the most fundamental meta-laws of physics to diverse kinds of consciousness, one of which could be God or something like god. Perhaps even these explanations are so mundane and bedrock is so bizarre that abstract objects or pure possibilities somehow harbor generative powers.